In Quentin Tarantino’s newest film, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, Leonardo DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton, an aging actor on the verge of insignificance. Dalton used to be a leading man who starred in movies and a popular western on television, but now he’s doing guest spots in which he always plays the villain. An agent (Al Pacino) warns him that he’s getting typecast as the guy who loses to the hero. It’s only a matter of time until audiences think of him as disposable.
If Once Upon a Time is Tarantino’s most personal film—and there seems to be a critical consensus that it is—it’s not just because of the director’s nostalgia for classic Hollywood, a bygone era in which he grew up and fell in love with movies. It’s more unconsciously self-referential than that. This is a film about someone who’s lost his magic.
While Tarantino remains one of the most technically skilled filmmakers of his generation—few have his capacity for writing crisp, sardonic dialogue, bringing out the best in actors, and pioneering new forms of cinematic structure—the second half of his career has been defined by films that fit the same misguided moral scheme.
Like Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is an act of wish fulfillment. Whereas before he ended World War II and avenged a brutal slaveowner, his latest counterfactual revenge fantasy prevents the Manson family killings of Sharon Tate and her three friends—a moment that shattered the Hollywood culture he idealizes. You could say this film is the third installment of Tarantino’s revisionist trilogy in which the atrocity in question—whether it’s the Holocaust or slavery or a hippie-led murdering spree—is stopped in its tracks by the intervention of a Sergio Leone-like twist. Hitler’s face is riddled with bullets, a plantation is set ablaze. Evil is overcome by a bag of dynamite or a blowtorch.
Tarantino’s penchant for gratuitous violence is nothing new. It’s evident in his best early work. More recently, however, he’s burdened his films with trying to right historical wrongs. The problem is that he doesn’t try to right them by grappling with them today. Instead, he’s made films like Basterds and Django that depict the culprits as having received the retribution we all wished they got but never did. Now, with Once Upon a Time, he’s acting as if the horrible reality never really happened at all.
Set in 1969, Once Upon a Time follows Rick and his stunt double, comrade, and drinking companion Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) in the leadup to the night of the Tate murders on August 8. Rick and Cliff’s relationship may be structured around a power imbalance—one works for the other—but their friendship comes from a place of genuine loyalty. Early on, Rick weeps about his dwindling career outside a popular Los Angeles restaurant. Cliff, a source of comfort, gives him a pair of sunglasses. “Don’t let the Mexicans see you crying.” Like most Tarantino heroes, he has an ethnicized view of the world. But in this film, Tarantino’s love letter to an earlier generation, you wonder what the filmmaker is really nostalgic for—as the movie treats casual racism like a natural ingredient of the period’s presumed innocence.
Because Edmund O’Brien once advised Dalton to buy rather than rent, he owns a swanky one-story house on Cielo Drive, right next door to Tate and her husband, the famed director Roman Polanski, who just made Rosemary’s Baby. Dalton imagines that he’s “one pool party away” from starring in his next picture. (DiCaprio plays the part well of an adult caught in an adolescent’s day dream.) The rest of the 161-minute film follows Dalton on the set of his current project, in which he again plays the scumbag, and Cliff as he’s running errands on his behalf. At one point, Cliff takes an extended diversion after offering a lift to a seductive teenage hitchhiker named Pussycat (Margaret Qualley). She directs him to the Spahn Movie Ranch, the infamous Manson hideout. While there, he has a near run-in with an eccentric long-haired hippie. Cliff makes it out alive, but it’s only a matter of time, of course, until he has to confront the Mansons again.
If you predicted this would lead to a violent catharsis, you’d be right. And if you predicted that, this being a Tarantino film, the course of history would be changed in the process, you’d also be right. Once again, Tarantino does not flesh out the real events surrounding his revisionist history. He depends on the viewer’s prior knowledge of what happened. There are no concentration camps in Basterds, and you have to be aware of the Manson history to get all the clues in Once Upon a Time. (Django, to its credit, does portray the horrors of slavery, if only in its own lurid way.) But Tarantino’s allusion-heavy style—relying on old movie scores and pop references—makes the media-savvy viewer the real hero, as Jonathan Rosenbaum once observed of his oeuvre.
The characters, on the other hand, tend to have little emotional stake in the course of events. Tarantino artificially makes the Basterds, the group of American soldiers who hunt down Nazis, Jewish. But he never shows them to have anything more than a surface-level resentment against the German Jew haters. Meanwhile, they are led by Aldo “The Apache” Raine, played by Pitt. You could argue it’s a Gentile Savior Narrative. Similarly, in Once Upon a Time, Rick and Cliff have no attachment to the Manson victims. The only reason either of them ostensibly care is because Rick wants to be in one of Polanski’s films. (Margot Robbie plays Tate as a thoughtless barbie doll who dances while folding clothes, and who relishes a midday trip to see one of her own films.) Heroism, for Tarantino, no longer has to do with his characters’ choices. They are treated more like instruments to deliver the orgasmic payoff of a big and bad violent conclusion that remakes the world to his liking.
With more commercial and critical success, Tarantino has been given more freedom over the last ten years—which is a dangerous thing for the creative mind. “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations,” as Orson Welles famously said. Tarantino has used his for making alternative histories that are at once violent reveries.
But while his early films were certainly violent, they were driven by characterological themes like loyalty and honor. It’s noteworthy that both Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction center around what happens before and after acts of crime. The violence is a byproduct of the seedy underbelly in which the characters live. But now, Tarantino is making films about revenge for revenge’s sake. The Nazis and the Mansons have to be killed, in his view, because of what we all know about them, not because of a complex set of motivations driving the people on the screen.
If Tarantino has lost his magic, it’s not because he’s any less a virtuoso of movie-making. It’s because he’s reverted to depicting shallow teenage fantasies. That’s quite a regression from his most famous film and second directorial effort. Through a set of three overlapping stories told in non-chronological order, Pulp Fiction argues that what can seem incidental is often part of a wider tapestry of connected actions. The climax ends with two of the main characters making reasonable decisions that we already know will determine their fate. This is, after all, part of the purpose of storytelling—to provide observational laboratories in which different ways of living are tried out.
It was no surprise that Tarantino became something of an icon when the film came out in 1994, and it was immediately hailed as a cultural landmark. David Denby described him at the time as a “Southern California swamp-mall creature” who rose, “unschooled, from a clerk’s position at a video store with thousands of films in his head and grand ambitions in his heart.” Twenty-five years later, Tarantino certainly remains ambitious. His films try to re-write history. But they offer little more than a kind of sordid pleasure, and even less in the way of insight or soul.